By Courtney Ridenhour
Some veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have trouble finding jobs, re-adjusting to family life or getting treatment for emotional problems. A surprisingly high number, like Durrelle Mackey, end up in jail.
Outside the gates of an Army intelligence and security station in Arlington, Mackey took his first hit of cocaine. It was 1979.
For the next 14 years and six months, Mackey served in the Pentagon, the West Wing during the Reagan administration, and in Great Britain during the first Gulf War.
“And all this whole time, I’m still getting high,” said Mackey, now 52, said. “I was tested …but there was always somebody or someone who kind of fixed it.”
Mackey was arrested in February on drug distribution charges. He pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to five years in jail with three years and nine months suspended, according to court documents.
He is one of six veterans incarcerated in the Rockbridge Regional Jail, Superintendent John Higgins said. The jail typically houses 95 to 100 inmates a day.
About 12 percent of the national jail population reported serving in the military, according to a 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The same report–the most recent data available–said about 20 percent of veterans in jails and prisons saw combat.
Since the report, the United States has entered into two wars that continue today.
There also has been an increased awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorder may contribute to criminal behaviors, according to the National Center for PTSD, a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
People who suffer from the disorder are more likely to be aggressive and anxious, two emotions that can lead to destructive behaviors, according to the center’s 2010 summary.
“You’re exposed to so much. I saw kids, 19 years old, with their legs shot off,” Mackey said. “Kids that would never walk again, be a kid again.”
Mackey served as an administrative and personnel clerk before his deployment to Europe when the Gulf War began in 1990.
During his time in the Army, Mackey said he was granted a top-secret security clearance. He said he delivered intelligence messages, had access to restricted documents, and brushed shoulders with top Reagan administration officials such as Oliver North, John Poindexter, and National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane.
The pressure contributed to his drug use, Mackey said. “There’s a lot that goes on that you’re exposed to … that you could probably never even imagine. And I’ve always had highlighted assignments.”
Mackey retired from the military in the early 90s. He said he played two years of professional basketball in Europe before returning home to Lexington.
His first arrest came in 1997 on drug distribution charges. Since then, Mackey has served several stints in jail and been through a VA rehabilitation program.
Tears gathered in the corners of Mackey’s eyes as he spoke of his 90-year-old parents, wife, three children and two stepchildren. He has more than a year left on his most recent sentence.
“It’s not going to stop me from living,” he said. “It’s just putting a hold on things.”